Guarding the Big Picture



Bill Bevan asked some of the custodians of our natural heritage why it is so important. Here he tells us what they had to say.

You can tell how important wildlife and landscapes are by the number of organisations dedicated to their protection. They range from government bodies and national parks to charities and campaign groups. Between them they mobilise thousands of employees and volunteers, own tens of thousands of square miles and attract millions of members for the benefit of our wildlife.

So we decided to speak to some of these custodians of Britain's wildlife and beautiful landscapes. We wanted to know why they thought natural heritage was so special and why we should be looking after it. They also reinforced our belief that there is a strong link between wildlife and the arts.

Natural England is the most recent addition to the pantheon of nature conservation guardians. A government body formed only in 2006 from the merger of other departments, Natural England has a singularly central role in influencing the fate of England's nature in the face of ever increasing threats.

Chairman of Natural England, Sir Martin Doughty told Living Art "We depend upon our landscapes, wildlife and plants, our rivers, lakes and seas that surround us. However our natural environment is fragile and needs careful stewardship - even more so now that we are all beginning to understand the potential impact of climate change."

The stewardship that Natural England offers is to advise government and landowners on natural heritage. It manages nationally important nature reserves which are open to the public. Sir Martin explains "The task Natural England has been given is to conserve and enhance this vital natural wealth, for its intrinsic value, the wellbeing and enjoyment of people and the economic prosperity that it brings. But we cannot do this alone; that is why initiatives such as Living Art are so important." He is at pains to stress how it is important for people to love and understand our natural environment because everyone can make decisions to help safeguard the environment.

Equivalent organisations are Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales.

Roger Thomas, the chief executive of the Countryside Council for Wales told us that "Wales has excellent hotspots for wildlife. Sites of Special Scientific Interests, Tir Gofal farms and National Nature Reserves for example." But he was also keen to emphasise "this is not just about wildlife. Creating links between habitats will also bring about benefits for people. It will create more opportunities for people to enjoy the natural environment with all the social, economic and health benefits which are linked with enjoying the countryside and coast."

That we gain much from wildlife is stressed by all three government organisations.  It is also a theme taken up by the RSPB's chief executive, Graham Wynne "Everyone's lives are enriched by birds. This is reflected in the Government's adoption of the health of the bird population as an indicator to chart our collective quality of life." Founded nearly 120 years ago, the RSPB is now the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe. It attracts over one million members and owns reserves in some of the most beautiful locations in Britain.
The RSPB is only one of many charities who protect land for wildlife in Britain. Others specialise in managing nature reserves throughout Britain to care for specific parts of our natural heritage with names that indicate their allegiances; Buglife, Plantlife and the Woodland Trust. However, all emphasise that it is the connections between one type of our natural heritage and others that is important. This is clear in the work of The Wildlife Trusts who safeguard over 2,000 reserves to help create an environment rich in all types of wildlife for everyone. Their chief executive Stephanie Hilborne was quick to support Living Art "in the hope it brings the country's attention to just how wonderful the British landscape is. Art can be appreciated at many levels and so too should our countryside and wildlife."

The importance of our landscape is argued evocatively by Fiona Reynolds, Director General of one of our biggest conservation charities, The National Trust. "Britain's landscapes are uniquely diverse and speak of a timeless association between people, the countryside and the wildlife that lives within it. The cultural heritage they represent provides a context for all our lives. They are a priceless resource and the National Trust is proud to be involved in preserving them for future generations to enjoy."

The success of the National Trust in galvanising public support for our heritage is declared by their 3.5 million members. Grand historic houses may come to mind when we think of the Trust, but as the second largest landowner in Britain they play a vital role in conserving natural places and encouraging people to go out and enjoy them under the motto 'for ever, for everyone'.

The need to protect landscapes for future generations is echoed by Jim Dixon, Chief Executive of the Peak District National Park Authority. "Our grandparents' generation had the foresight to found National Parks and establish authorities dedicated to their conservation and promotion. In our era, we must protect and enhance these special environments. We must hand on to future generations National Parks that are conserved and that are accessible to all." The Peak District was founded over 50 years ago as the first of 14 national parks dedicated to protecting the most valued landscapes of breathtaking scenery, rare wildlife and cultural heritage in Britain. Visited by millions of people each year, they are also 'living landscapes', home to diverse rural communities who are in many ways the real guardians of the countryside.

Perhaps the British interest in wildlife and protecting special landscapes comes from how many people live so close together. Britain has one of the highest population densities in Europe and the Peak District is surrounded by Sheffield, Derby, Birmingham, Stoke, Manchester and Leeds. In fact it was because of these cities that the Peak District was declared a National Park in the first place. It is the 'green lung' for urban populations keen to escape the concrete for open spaces and tranquillity. This is why Sir Nigel Thompson, chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England recognises the importance of the countryside. "I've spent my career in engineering, building large, hard structures. Maybe that's why our natural heritage and fantastically diverse, beautiful countryside has come to mean so very much to me. We may live on a crowded, built up island, but I reckon the countryside is its greatest asset."

So we return to the Big Picture's link between wildlife and art which Graham Wynne recalls has a long tradition, "Birds touch many people's lives and are a living thread running though both our a natural and cultural heritage. Their beauty, grace and powers of endurance have inspired poets, artists and composers."
Stephanie Hilborn agrees, "Our wildlife is part of our heritage and has inspired artists, poets and authors for generations." It is easy to think of many pieces of art, music and writing that have drawn on wildlife. Great painters have turned to the British countryside again and again for their inspiration. You see it celebrated in the works of John Constable, Joseph Turner, David Hockney and others. Edward Elgar was inspired to write a cello concerto by the dawn chorus while Vaughan Williams wrote The Lark Ascending. Not to forget Blackbird by the Beatles. When Robert Burns penned Auld Lang Syne he drew on flowers and streams as metaphors for times happily shared together. And perhaps the most famous poem of all time in the English language was inspired by nature. What stopped William Wordsworth from wandering lonely as a cloud was of course wild daffodils fluttering in the breeze beside a lake.

Living Art works to consciously promote wildlife through art projects. That is why the Big Picture of Natural Britain has been conceived as a massive piece of collaborative public artwork. The Big Picture gives you the chance to be an artist for wildlife by taking a photograph of the natural world that is close to your heart or home. As Stephanie Hilborne says, "Living Art will continue this tradition and raise awareness of the new challenges the natural world faces through an exciting and beautiful photographic patchwork. I look forward to seeing the end result!" 


Dr Bill Bevan is a writer, photographer and heritage interpretation officer lucky enough to live close to the Peak District National Park.